The Dispute of R. Eliezer. The Oven of Aknai, ch.9 of Akiva and Ephraim by Alexander Zephyr
Â Â Â Â The subject of the Dispute before the Sanhedrin, involving R. Eliezer, was the question of susceptibility to Levitical uncleanness of the Aknai oven consisting of tiles separated from one another by sand ('coiled snake') but externally plastered over with cement. The majority ofÂ Sages said that this oven was capable of becoming impure. R. Eliezer disagreed with their decision asserting that such an oven is always pure.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â In the morning of the Sanhedrin Dispute people saw R. Eliezer and his disciple R. Akiva walking together to the Academy of Yavneh and discussing the issue of the trial. It was approximately a few years before 118 or 120 CE, the dates of R. Eliezer death.
Â 'Master', said R. Akiva, 'the issue has been clearly defined. The oven is ritually pure. Unfortunately, the other Sages do not agree with your interpretation'.
R. Eliezer replied: "Akiva, you have stated the problem well, but what is the answer? My colleagues have not understood the underlying concepts and have misinterpreted the law. It is my job to correct their erroneous way of thinking."
"Master", rejoined Akiva, "the debate between you and all the other Sages has persisted so long without resolution that it has generated considerable anger and frustration. A number of us fear that this partisan zealotry will split the Academy and result in harm to you, the Academy and possibly the whole Jewish community. It is not unusual for the Sages to hold differing views, and then the matter is decided in favor of the opinion of the majority. Why not follow that principle?"
The older man slowly shook his head back and forth, "No, the truth must be sought, and when found, followed. It is my duty to convince the others of the error of their thinking."
When they reached the Academy, Rabbi Eliezer went directly in to take his appointed place, while his disciple turned to join several colleagues standing near the entrance.
From this encounter we can see that R. Akiva agreed with the position of his teacher that, "The oven is ritually pure", and regardless of it, he advised R. Eliezer to ignore the truth and take the side of the majority to please the Sages, "Why not follow that principle?"
R. Eliezer tried to persuade the members of the Sanhedrin of the correctness of his opinion using a brilliant analysis of relevant Halakha. When he saw that this did not help, he applied unnatural proofs to make a point of the rightness of his position: The carob-tree was torn from its roots and landed 100 cubits away; A stream of water reversed direction; The walls of the building bent and almost fell. None of these miracles helped either. The determination of the Sages remained adamant.
Having seen their inexorability, R. Eliezer exclaimed in desperation, "If the Law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!" Whereupon a voice from heaven cried out: "Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the Law agrees with him!"
- "It is not in Heaven", answered the Rabbis (Deuteronomy 30: 12). "The Torah has already been revealed at Mount Sinai. We, therefore, need not be concerned with further Heavenly Voices" (Exodus 23:2).
As soon as R. Eliezer left the House of Study, the Sages pronounced all the parts of the 'snake-oven' unclean and burned them.
In the same afternoon the President of the Sanhedrin Rabban Gamliel spoke to the Sages. A vote was taken and a decision made to excommunicate R. Eliezer.
What was his 'crime'? That he was stubbornly defending his position against the majority of the Sages? He was confident that his opinion is correct, and he had proved it (to himself) by earthly and heavenly means.
Rabban Gamliel then asked, "Who will go and tell him?" Only then did Rabbi Akiva speak. "I will go and tell him, lest an unsuitable person go and tell him and thus destroy the whole world (commit a great wrong by informing him tactlessly)."
It was not the first time that R. Akiva had volunteered 'trying to help' R. Eliezer. Once R. Eliezer was arrested for heresy, tried by the Roman judge and almost immediately released. He could not recall the cause of it and was very distressed by accusations. R. Akiva 'helping' the Master to recollect long past events, somehow managed to discover what had happened and eventually succeeded in comforting R. Eliezer (Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 165, 17a, and the Tosefta, Hullin 2.24).
The Talmud reveals that R. Akiva was not the first man who brought news of his excommunication to R. Eliezer.
"When Yose son of Damascene visited R. Eliezer in Lydda and brought him news of the vote taken in the academy, whereupon Eliezer burst in tears and said: 'Go tell them, do not worry about your voting! I received the identical teaching from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who received it from his teacher who in turn received it from his teacher, a Halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai" (Midrash Yadayim 4:3; Tosefta Yadayim 2:16).Â